As summer flights head back to Antarctica, we look at the geopolitics of the land that no one owns, but everyone wants a slice of

Inexpressible Island in Antarctica has an intriguing story to tell from the Heroic Age, but there’s a new chapter being added that is causing “sound and fury” among many countries.

A wooden sign, a plaque and seal bones mark the site where six men from Robert Scott’s Terra Nova expedition were forced to spend winter in a snow cave. They suffered hunger, frostbite and dysentery.

They named it Inexpressible in recognition of their awful experience. The site is protected by the New Zealand Antarctic Heritage Trust and the island is a stopping point for cruise ships.

But now that rocky outcrop – part of New Zealand’s territorial claim, the Ross Dependency – is getting a new occupant.

China is building its fifth Antarctic research station there nearly four decades after it opened its first, the Great Wall Station.

Xinhua news agency says the Inexpressible Island centre will “provide year-round support for researchers conducting tasks such as observations of land, ocean, atmosphere, ice shelf and biology, establishment of an observation and monitoring network in the Antarctic, and survey of marine environmental protection.”

It says the Ross Sea is described “as the least altered marine ecosystem on earth – a living laboratory that could possibly tell the life history of the Antarctic”.

Sounds great – but other countries are dubious about China’s real motives for expanding its presence on the frozen continent, and are also muscling up.

No one owns any of Antarctica, but enough countries have put their flags in the ice. Teetaweepo, CC BY-SA 3.0 , via Wikimedia Commons

Today, The Detail talks to Dr Alan Hemmings, a Canterbury University specialist on Antarctic governance, geopolitics and environmental management, about the concerns over China’s Antarctica ambitions and how other nations are responding.

Seven countries, including New Zealand, have territorial claims on parts of Antarctica, but no country owns the land.

The continent is governed by The Antarctic Treaty signed in 1959, which states that Antarctica shall be used for peaceful, scientific purposes only. More than 50 countries are now parties to the treaty.

“There’s a lot of sound and fury around what the Chinese are doing because they’ve got money; their Antarctic programme is demonstrably expanding.

“What I think is more interesting, and is a consequence of this anxiety about China, is that a number of Western Antarctic states, particularly the Anglosphere countries have suddenly started this kind of splurge of facilities upgrades and buying new equipment.”

Hemmings details the upgrades to the stations, including New Zealand’s planned $350 million Scott Base, but also the “tooling up” of countries in terms of investment in defence equipment so it can be used on the continent.

The Royal New Zealand Navy, for example, has a new fleet tanker, the Aotearoa, which is ice strengthened.

“It supports, in a formal sense, the civilian presence there, our civilian presence and the Americans’. But … would that argument have washed if we had seen the Chinese navy or indeed anybody else’s navy build an ice-strengthened tanker and operate in the Antarctic? I think a lot of people would think there was a nefarious purpose behind that.”

Hemmings says he is annoyed by people’s “passivity” over the continent and fears the system that governs it is at risk of being hollowed out.

“Antarctica is the only one of our continents where we haven’t killed each other. We haven’t had a war in the Antarctic.”

But he warns that it is no longer protected just by its remoteness, harshness and size.

“Such is our ingenuity that we can threaten everything … as we know from climate change.”

Sharon Brettkelly is co-host of The Detail podcast.

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